Periodically the type of things that "go viral" on social media can tell us a lot about ourselves.  In the last week a simple posting about the color of a dress has involved over 29 million people on line alone. In addition, popular media has picked up this story on television. What happened here?  

 A picture of a dress was posted and a debate began about the dress and whether it was black and blue or gold and white.  How so many people see the same thing so differently is one of the mysteries of the human condition.  Of course there is a lot of interesting science behind the debate.  Maybe more interesting is the way in which people have placed themselves in tribes over the color perceptions, white and gold camps defending their position against the blue and black tribe.

 In this post on the science, Bevil Conway a neuroscientist who studies color, noted  " when context varies so will visual perception"   Http://www.wired.com/2015/02/science-one-agrees-color-dress

Quite literally when people looked at the color samples in a different light, from a different angle, from a tighter or more distant view.... their perception of the color changed.  

Everyday we see things or experience aspects of life along with our fellow human beings. Everyday we assume other people see what we see or experience what we experience.  The phenomenon of the black and blue/ white and gold dress is a simple reminder that we in fact do not experience the world in the same way.  It also reminds us how intensely we will defend our own view of the world or dismiss someone else's without understanding how their view has been formed. 

Taking the time to understand the way in which the people around you see and experience the world can be interesting in the very least and sometimes life changing.  Most of our experiences are our reality and only ours. What can happen if we take time to explore the reality of the people around us? 
 
 
Organizational Strategies for Improving Diversity and Inclusion 
Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

By: Mary L Bennett, CEC, CIA, MBA

The accounting profession, and other financial services organizations, have  been working on diversity and inclusion (D&I) challenges and opportunities for decades.  Many organizations led the way beginning with a focus on improving gender diversity. Increasingly organizations have moved or are moving to a broader definition of diversity and inclusion defined by gender, ethnicity, age, generation, religion, sexual orientation and many more aspects of our differences and similarities as human beings.  The business focus on inclusion is driven by the perfect storm of increased demand for professionals which is outpacing the supply. Some reasons for the perfect storm gap in the supply of accountants and other professionals:

1-Unprecedented retirement numbers of baby boomers
2-Changing demographics in the US not mirrored in the profession ( for example increasingly minority and women owned businesses are dominating the new business ranks but not keeping pace in the accounting profession)
3-Unsustainable turnover rates (among accountants over 25%)
4-Ambiguity or outright lack of attractiveness of traditional long term career paths in the profession 

What are the firms of the future doing to prepare for this storm through their diversity and inclusion strategies?

1- Effective firms deeply understand, document and communicate their firm's customized business case for investing resources in the attraction, retention and advancement of those who bring elements of diversity to the firm. All levels of the firm should be considered especially the leadership ranks. A more inclusive culture includes diversity of thought at the leadership level in order to accomplish an effective return on investment. in D&I 

2-Successful firms use their customized business case as a starting point to accurately diagnose their firm and its evolution toward building a more diverse and inclusive organization. Diversity is a reflection of the actual ranks of the organization along the dimensions of diversity such as gender, ethnicity, age, etc. Inclusiveness is the degree to which the organization successfully maximizes the benefits of the diversity.  Understanding where the organization is in terms of maturity, and therefore readiness for strategy implementation, is essential to avoid common pitfalls.  A common example of such a pitfall is implementation of programming before the business case and strategic context is solidly in place.  In this situation it is very difficult to obtain buy in from the leadership level and down through the entire organization.

3-Firms effective in building greater diversity and inclusion have a defined and targeted set of strategies that align with the evolutionary readiness of their organization.   These always begin with effective business case formation, communication plans and tangible diagnostic preparedness.  

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article series to learn more about specific strategies organizations use 


 
 
Flexibility??  ...Been there done that?  or  That wont work here...our customers and clients are too demanding?  Do these comments sound familiar?  Read on to learn how flexibility may not be what you think.

Building flexibility into a work culture impacts so much more then your employees intention to stay and contribute their very best to the organization.  While it does do that,  it also has the power to enhance your business.  Flexibility has the power to contribute to:  
-Employee Attraction and Retention
-Improved Productivity
-Improved Customer Service and Satisfaction
-Effective Operational Management

For detailed information on each of these potential benefits from flexibility  read the whitepaper published on the AICPA website.  Link below.
(Flexibility Business Case- How Flexibility Can Actually Improve Your Business http://www.aicpa.org/career/womenintheprofession/downloadabledocuments/2010%20mary%20bennett%20flexibility-the%20business%20case.pdf )


In addition to the above benefits, flexibility is not just about changing work schedules.  Frequently there is an assumption made that if an employee wants to take advantage of flexibility it means that they want to reduce their total hours .In your organization does this also mean they are consciously or unconsciously labeled as "less committed", "less worthy of investment, attention, promotion"? Does this also sound familiar?
 
Flexibility is actually about treating your employees as professionals for the benefit of the firm as much as for the benefit of the individual.  Most of us arel aware of the flexibility required to deliver the value propostion expected of a professional in industries such as accounting and law.  The success of the firm depends on talented individuals being flexible and adaptable to anticipate and meet client needs.  This flexibility is similar to the adaptability required by the organization to allow individuals some freedom to meet their personal needs.  Consider Chris.

Chris is at the mid management level and is currently struggling to build a successful career and a successul family life simultaneously. The firm offers a flexible work arrangement program that allows one to cut back their hours and travel schedule to meet family needs.  It is common knowledge that this program will limit advancement even if the individual works full time plus hours during the most intense deadline periods of the year.  Chris feels compelled to take this option even though it is not exactly what is needed.  What Chris really needs is just a little bit more control over the schedule and approach to meeting firm and client needs. If less judgement and more acceptance were displayed by senior leaders when Chris departed from traditional face time expectations, there might be a chance to stay with this firm.  Chris actually has less desire to reduce hours and more desire to meet his responsibilities with some flexibility.  Chris feels that if this were possible, long term career options would most definitely include staying at this firm.  As it stands now, with part time as the only option to get some control weighed against the loss of income and advancement potential- a long term path here is not in the plan.

Flexibility is not just about part time.  Whether it does or does not include changes in total hours the core of building a flexible culture is clarity in expectations.  If a professional is clear on the expectations, accountabilities and how to create value at each level , flexibility becomes much easier.  Our top talent will exceed expectations if they understand what these expectations are.  Top talent will have the motivation, energy, enthusiasm to bring greater value if they feel they are treated as a professional- which includes allowing them to determine when, where and how to best meet their responsibilities. Like any developmental skill, meeting priorities is something that requires coaching. This is true regardless of the flexibility of the culture.  With targeted efforts to clarify expectations, there is less ambiguity for all.

The above discussion is not theory. After ten years experience leading a unit with a flexible culture, I have seen the theory in action.  Leading 50 people who were  all taking advantage of some type of " formal flexibility" - which included part time and full time schedules- I have seen first hand how flexibility can directly support the business goals of an organization.   Looking for employee engagement, commitment, retention and answers to work-life challenges that will  impact clients- building a flexible culture is your answer.  It comes with many side benefits.

 
 
The power of sponsor-advocacy relationships is not very well understood in many organizations even though these relationships have been the electricity of career progress as long as there have been careers.  Intentional sponsorship and advocacy is frequently the missing element in building inclusive environments where all top talent can thrive.

The issue of sponsorship and advocacy is often subtle and requires a close look at how individuals move through the organization. How do they advance? How do they become visible? What is considered an increase in value delivered that puts someone on "the radar screen"?  Many of the subtle but essential rules about how an individual advances in an organization are real but unwritten. As a result , it is critical that all top talent have access to sponsor-advocates in their career journey.

Sponsor- advocacy in the development and career advancement process is often missing for emerging leaders, especially those who represent diversity from the current and past leadership teams. This is not because those in positions of influence are deliberately or even consciously excluding anyone but because  human beings regularly exhibit something called "affinity bias". This is simply a pattern of identifying with those who remind us of ourselves , with those on a path similar to the one we have taken.  We reach out to those who we feel an affinity with and "take them under our wing".  As a result of these human patterns the natural formation of traditional sponsor-advocate relationships can unevenly provide critical "survive and thrive" training.  

In most organizations there remains a lack of broadly defined diversity in the majority of positions of influence and power.  The positions that represent deep knowledge of the unwritten rules are still today not held by individuals who represent a broad definition of diversity. In many cases, senior leaders naturally reach out to younger leaders who remind them of themselves as protoges. When asked, senior leaders are often not aware that an uneven execution of sponsor- advocacy is happening and they are a party to it. When the question of why more emerging leaders who represent broader diversity are not in their circle the leaders often indicate that they do not feel they can be a mentor to women, minorities, GLBT, or the disabled. They acknowledge, when asked to reflect, that they have reached out naturally to people they feel they can help because they have walked the same road. These influential leaders sometimes feel they do not have as much to offer the individuals who they perceive to be walking a different road.  This is in fact not the case, there is much they have to offer and it is possibly even more important they offer it to those who represent diversity because these individuals have less access to critical information about the majority culture. In addition, these individuals may represent unique perspectives, networks, and experiences that will make the organization stronger.
 
These factors are a catalyst behind the lack of an even playing field for all top talent. Without the same access to senior leadership, critical learning and developmental experiences,all  individuals do not have the same opportunities. 

Moving through an organization seeking advancement is a very
real journey. This journey is one that requires a map that comes from a sponsor- advocate.  All individuals should be thinking about gaps in experiences needed to increase our skill level and our balance sheet of talent. It is important to first understand what the organization is looking for in its emerging  leaders. This is not always , in fact not often , written. A sponsor-advocate provides critical information that helps the individual understand where they are on track and where they are missing the mark. While understanding high value activities is the first step in efficient career navigation, an individual is not always in a position to acquire access to these opportunities and experiences without someone in the inner circle acting as an advocate. In some cases, it is nearly impossible to broker opportunities such as committee assignments, over seas promotions, strategic client relationships, profit and loss responsibility without assistance. Advocacy from those in positions of influence is required. 

Many emerging female and minority leaders do not have deep sponsor-advocate relationships. This fact slows the career progress of these diverse leaders. It creates real difference , not only in the opportunities that this talent has access to but also meaningful differences in learning and skill development. While it may be heresy to post this next comment- it is true. When we hear that there were no female or diverse candidates for promotion that were qualified...it is sometimes true because these candidates have not had the experiences needed to qualify them for the new opportunity largely because of a lack of sponsor-advocate intervention.

What can we do as individuals and organizations? Individuals must work to form relationships with senior leaders in order to access critical career navigation  information and support.  If you represent diversity from the current leadership team it is important that you work even more proactively to develop these relationships as they may not form naturally without you acting as a catalyst.  The good news is that talented individuals  can get what is needed  from multiple relationships and sources, and in fact should not expect to get everything from one sponsor-advocate.  Putting all of your efforts into one relationship is not a good strategy because there will always be change within organizations. How hard a talented individual works and the quality of their work is not the only thing that matters... it is the merely price of entry.  Talented individuals  need to know if they are doing the right things at the right time in their career.  In addition, the right people must know they are doing the right things. The "right things" are those things recognized as having top value to the organization.

 Organizations that understand all of the above take a hard look
at their assignment, promotion and sponsor-advocacy processes. Uneven access to senior leadership can be addressed through awareness raising, sponsor-advocacy programming and an enhanced talent development culture.